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War in the West

Rancher Cliven Bundy has long been at odds with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). For 20 years he has taken an increasingly defiant stance toward the agency, refusing to pay what is now more than $1 million in grazing fees and fines to a federal government he does not recognize.

 

BUNKERVILLE, Nev. –– Rancher Cliven Bundy has long been at odds with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). For 20 years he has taken an increasingly defiant stance toward the agency, refusing to pay what is now more than $1 million in grazing fees and fines to a federal government he does not recognize.

With a copy of the Constitution ever present in the front pocket of his shirt, Bundy, 68, insists he has rights to public lands that trump federal control. Employing the fringe ideas of the rabidly antigovernment “sovereign citizens” movement to support bogus constitutional theories about the fees, Bundy insists that his Mormon ancestors ran cattle long before the reach of Washington, D.C., encroached on the liberty of westerners by, as he claims, stealing their property.

“I have raised cattle on that land, which is public land for the people of Clark County, all my life. Why I raise cattle there and why I can raise cattle there is because I have preemptive rights. Who is the trespasser here? Who is the trespasser on this land? Is the United States trespassing on Clark County, Nevada, land? Or is it Cliven Bundy who is trespassing on Clark County, Nevada, land?” Bundy told right-wing radio host Glenn Beck’s online network The Blaze on April 8.

Federal courts have an answer to Bundy’s questions. His opposition to federal jurisdiction in Nevada, a U.S. District Court ruled last year, has no legal basis as “the public lands in Nevada are property of the United States because the United States has held title to those lands since 1848, when Mexico ceded the land to the United States.”

In early April, responding to that ruling, the BLM hired cowboys from across the West to begin a roundup of what the BLM had come to call “trespass cattle” in lieu of payment for what Bundy owes –– a bill that had been mounting since 1992, when he stopped paying.

Within four days of his defiant comments, hundreds of heavily armed militia members drawn from a newly revitalized antigovernment movement had swarmed Bundy’s corner of the desert. Called to the ranch to take on the federal government, they came by the truckload, angry, armed and ready to fight back.

While it is unclear if Bundy understood in advance what turmoil he would unleash on the American West, a region whose populace has long distrusted political leaders in Washington, his defiance would soon inspire widespread lawlessness and an ever present threat of violence.

On April 12, a tense, armed standoff with BLM agents –– an event the militias have dubbed “the Battle of Bunkerville” –– developed. Bundy ordered a mob of angry antigovernment zealots fueled by conspiracy theories to take back about 900 cattle from the federal government, ignoring pleas from Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie to keep the peace and entertain a discussion with federal authorities. Talk was not what Bundy wanted. His remedy was, in effect, the suspension of the rule of law. And he got it, temporarily, as the BLM withdrew, unprepared for this reaction to its actions. 

Writing on his blog hours after the standoff, Mike Vanderboegh, an aging government-hating propagandist from Alabama who heads the III Percent Patriots, characterized the events in grandiose terms. “It is impossible to overstate the importance of the victory won in the desert today,” he gushed. “The feds were routed –– routed. There is no word that applies. Courage is contagious, defiance is contagious, victory is contagious. Yet the war is not over.”

Preparing for a Standoff

While it might have seemed that the standoff was sudden, unplanned and organic, in fact the events were highly orchestrated, beginning with Bundy sending out an aggressive call for a “range war” after the BLM arrested Bundy’s oldest son, David Bundy, who was filming the roundup of Bundy’s cattle.

With his eldest child charged with failing to disperse, Cliven Bundy claimed federal “thieves” had turned on his family, and he vowed retribution. “They have my cattle and now they have one of my boys. …  Range War begins tomorrow at Bundy ranch,” Bundy wrote on his family blog. A video posted on YouTube that showed BLM agents using a Taser in a physical altercation with Bundy’s son, Ammon Bundy, also did much to rile extremist fury.

Almost overnight, thanks largely to the Bundy’s video going viral on antigovernment websites, the family’s fight with the government became a touchstone for Tea Party Republicans, Libertarians, Oath Keepers and militia members, many of whom saw in the footage the beginnings of a war.

Ryan Payne, 30, an electrician and former soldier who had deployed twice to the Iraq war, became enraged after seeing the video from his home in Anaconda, Mont., 650 miles away. Part of a small militia unit called the West Mountain Rangers, Payne also sat atop a little-known militia organization called Operation Mutual Aid, a group Payne designed to lead militias nationwide in responding to federal aggressions.

That night, he called Bundy and asked if he needed the militia’s help, Payne told the Intelligence Report during a nearly two-hour interview at the Bundy ranch weeks after the standoff.

 “I said the type of help that I’m going to be bringing is militia units and Patriots from all over the country,” Payne said, recalling the conversation. He added that Bundy told him, “I’m not going to tell you what to bring, I’m not going to tell you to bring guns or any of that type of stuff. All I’m going to say is we need help, and you use your own discernment and decide what needs to be brought.”

Payne left that day with another member of his militia and drove through the night, a few sleeping bags in tow, burning up cell phones hoping to bring every militia member he could. On April 9, he sent out an urgent call online.

“At this time we have approximately 150 responding, but that number is growing by the hour,” he wrote, offering directions to the Bundy ranch. “May God grant each and every one of you safety, wisdom and foresight, and courage to accomplish the mission we have strived for so long to bring to fruition.”

It was an audacious call for a movement that had been itching for a fight with the federal government for some time, especially in the West where more than half of all land is federally owned. Payne’s message caught the eye of antigovernment folk heroes –– people like Alex Jones of Infowars; Richard Mack and his Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association; and Stewart Rhodes’ Oath Keepers. Militia units came from Montana, Arizona, Arkansas, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia and California and elsewhere –– all promising to bring all they could muster.

By Saturday, April 12, a steady stream of antigovernment fanatics had been arriving in Bunkerville for weeks, their anger growing by the day.

Freeloading on the Range

Given Bundy’s history of incendiary rhetoric –– and the reality that Bundy had shown no indication he intended to respect law enforcement –– the BLM proceeded cautiously with the roundup as fury built in Nevada and elsewhere. Their caution, BLM officials say, stemmed from a fear that a wrong move could spark chaos or even a bloodbath. After all, this was not the first time Bundy had gone toe-to-toe with federal authorities.

The Bundy family had been at odds with the BLM for almost half of the 20th century. By 1992, two years after Bundy declined a 10-year grazing permit that mandated the protection of the desert tortoise, his posturing had become increasingly extreme in response to federal court orders to remove “trespass cattle” from public lands.

Bundy began filing sovereign citizen-like filings with the court, acknowledging only a “sovereign state of Nevada,” not the federal government. In 1998, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department also received information suggesting armed ranchers and Bundy supporters planned to resist any attempts to close public lands.

In documents obtained by the SPLC, the seeds of the defiance that threatened bloodshed earlier this year were readily apparent. In one letter, written as the federal government moved to take action in 2012, Bundy wrote, “I will stand and protect my rights, whatever it takes, to defend this valid ranch, the access for the public, and the policing power of the Clark County Sheriff.”

The irony, of course, is that not even Nevada’s Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie –– as a county sheriff, seen as the highest possible law officer by many antigovernment extremists –– could quell the rising fury that had grown around Bundy by the morning of April 12.

That morning, Gillespie, in an effort to dissolve those tensions, agreed to meet Bundy in front of an angry mob of heavily armed supporters in a protest area the BLM had established alongside the highway near Bundy’s property. 

“The BLM is going to cease this operation,” Gillespie told the raucous crowd. “The Gold Butte allotment will be reopened to the public, and they will be removing their assets.” He then turned to Bundy. “What I would hope to sit down with you and talk about is how to have this facilitated in a safe way.”

The audience screamed back, “Where are the cows?” and demanded the release of Bundy’s cattle. “Bring the cows back! You’re holding them hostage to broker a deal,” one particularly vocal member of the audience cried.

When Gillespie was finished, Bundy walked toward a jerrybuilt podium on risers. Holding a yellow legal pad in his hands, he chastised the sheriff for not understanding his constitutional obligation to protect citizens from the federal government –– an idea that has gained traction in recent years thanks to figures like Richard Mack. Bundy countered with a list of demands: the federal government must open up all restricted public lands, remove BLM equipment from the area, and end its tyrannical campaign of harassment against his family by returning his cows.

Lastly, the BLM would disarm federal agents.

“We want those arms delivered right here under these flags in one hour,” Bundy said, his voice creaking with age, before turning his attention to reporters in the crowd asking them to document that his demands were being met. When Bundy was finished, Gillespie turned to his deputies and left without saying a word.

The time that followed was tense. One hour and 20 minutes after Gillespie departed, Bundy again took the stage. He ordered the nearby freeway blocked and condemned Sheriff Gillespie for failing to protect the people from federal abuses.

“Let’s go get those cattle,” he said. “All we got to do is open those gates and let them back on the river.” As a final note he offered, “We’re about to take this country back by force.

The Standoff

What followed appeared chaotic, as cowboys on horseback lining the overlooking buttes rode off into the distance and cars and trucks peeled out of the dusty roadside clearing the BLM had set aside, all bound for a corral two miles away that was protected by BLM agents.

Once there, in a low-lying wash where gates held the Bundy herd, an angry, heavily armed crowd grew, defying orders and engaging in a tense game of chicken with BLM rangers in riot gear demanding through loudspeakers that they disperse. They shouted profanities and gripped their weapons. Militia snipers lined the hilltops and overpasses with their weapons trained on federal agents.

What happened was not unplanned. As Payne later told the SPLC, he had ordered certain gunmen “to put in counter sniper positions” and others to hang behind at the ranch. “[M]e and Mel Bundy put together the plan for the cohesion between the Bundys and the militia, which is what you saw on [April 12]. Sending half of the guys up to support the protesters … and keep overwatch and make sure that if the BLM wanted to get froggy, that it wouldn’t be good for them,” Payne said.

The BLM, he added, is a “private corporation” and not a government entity — a falsehood, but typical of many extremists’ beliefs.

Recounting the standoff weeks later from the Bundy compound, Payne smiled. In the days before the standoff, he and Cliven Bundy had toured the public lands Bundy was using, looking for ways to defend them if necessary. He knew the battlefield, planned the response by Bundy supporters, and made sure snipers were in position. In his telling, his planning could not have gone more perfectly.

“Not only did they take up the very best position to over watch everything, they also had the high ground, they were fortified with concrete and pavement barriers,” Payne said. “They had great lines of fire and then, when I sent in that other team, for counter sniper positions, [the BLM agents] were completely locked down. They had no choice but to retreat.”

The reason, he boasted, was “overwhelming tactical superiority.”

“The hair was up on the back of my neck,” Clark County Assistant Sheriff Joe Lombardo recounted later to KLAS-TV. “There was a lot of firepower out there and it made me nervous. Anything could happen.”

What actually happened was unexpected. The BLM, without any prior announcement, packed up and left. The Bundys, BLM officials later confirmed, unlatched the gates and left on horses to retrieve their cattle. In a statement provided to news media that day, the BLM said it suspended operations “because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.”

For the antigovernment movement, there could be no greater victory. By threatening violence, they had suspended the rule of law, at least temporarily, in the name of liberty. And by standing down, the BLM had given at least the appearance of legitimacy to their claims –– a legitimacy they were quick to flaunt.

As BLM rangers climbed into their trucks to depart on that April afternoon, a handful of Bundy supporters hung a banner from an overpass on Interstate 15. The red, white and blue sign read, “The West Has Now Been Won.”

Victory at the Ranch

With weeks becoming months and no action from the federal government, Bundy’s actions have bolstered the extremist right in ways that few other events in the last two decades have.

As Vanderboegh wrote, “There is a new spirit of resistance abroad in the land. The folks in Nevada were not cowed by federal guns pointed at them under the overpass.” He added ominously, “I would look at what happened in the desert today and be very, very afraid.”

Within two months his words would seem predictive. On June 8, two people who had spent time on the Bundy ranch shocked the nation with a killing spree in Las Vegas.

Jerad Miller and his wife, Amanda, entered a restaurant and shot two Las Vegas police officers dead. Witnesses say the couple shouted, “This is a revolution!” and draped one of the slain officer’s bodies with a Gadsden flag –– a cantankerous symbol used by the antigovernment movement and many Tea Parties. Then they ran into a nearby Wal-Mart and killed an armed civilian who tried to stop them.

The Millers’ violence was extreme, but tense encounters between the BLM and antigovernment activists have also taken place elsewhere across the West — in Utah, Texas, New Mexico and Idaho — in the wake of the ranch standoff. Worse, a handful of right-wing politicians and commentators have given cover to Bundy, openly supporting the efforts of a man who is refusing to pay the same grazing fees that every other rancher does and who has invited armed extremists to make sure the federal government can’t enforce the law.

This May in Texas, militia members and others came to protest a BLM survey of more than 90,000 acres along the Red River, fearing the federal government was planning a land grab. A month earlier in Utah, two men pointed a handgun at a BLM worker in a marked federal vehicle while holding up a sign that said, “You need to die.” In New Mexico’s Otero County, a tense confrontation between state and federal officials ended after BLM officials opened gates cutting off water for grazing cattle to protect the jumping mouse; conspiracy theories had demonized BLM efforts to protect the environment.

And in mid-June, a BLM ranger and a California Highway Patrol officer were shot and wounded, allegedly by a self-declared sovereign citizen, Brent Douglas Cole, who was camping outside of Nevada City, Calif.

None of this has tamped down the rhetoric. Instead, bolstered by populist rage and supported by a far-flung network of militias, BLM policies have been characterized as a tyrannical blueprint to destroy state sovereignty, sully the Constitution and steal public lands away from “we the people.” Bundy still has real support in certain quarters — despite his comments about the supposed problems of “the Negro,” racist remarks that drove away much of his mainstream support.

Perhaps most surprising, as the FBI and other authorities actively investigate crimes allegedly committed at the ranch, has been the political support given Bundy’s claims in conservative corners of Congress and certain local jurisdictions.

Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (R-Las Vegas), who had made two trips to Bunkerville to meet protesters, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the federal actions leading up to the standoff were “horrifying.” U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told The Los Angeles Times, “You can’t just show up with guns blazing and expect to win the hearts and minds of the public.”

One thing seems certain: The “victory” at the “Battle of Bunkerville” has reinvigorated a temporarily flagging militia movement.

A month after the standoff San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner Phil Lyman led a protest against a ban on motorized vehicles in Recapture Canyon that was meant to protect archaeological sites. Waving Gadsden flags just like that draped over the slain officer in Las Vegas and denouncing the BLM, some 50 protesters, including members of the Bundy family, illegally rode ATVs into the fragile canyon.

Lyman did little to conceal his rage and his worry.

“If things don’t change, it’s not long before shots will be fired,” Lyman warned. “We can avoid it. But it’s not going to be by the people changing their attitudes and accepting more intrusion.”